General Bank Street News

What makes for better teaching and teachers? Flexibility and fairness in the workforce.

Posted by Bank Street on October 11, 2011

In a recent Op Ed at the Boston Globe, former superintendent of Denver Public Schools and current Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) argues that we need a new system to “attract and retain new, talented teachers.” It is worth paying attention to Senator Bennet as he is a "big drafter" (along with Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa) of the Senate Democrats' ESEA reauthorization plan released this week.

In his piece, he writes:

“We urgently need a new system—one that provides competitive salaries from the start, and opportunities for growth, attracting talented people entering the workforce to the profession.” [Source]

A major component of his plan is to front-load salary incentives for beginning teachers and decrease salary increases and retirement benefits for experienced teachers. He argues that this would work because…

“… when those teachers are ready to leave the classroom, they’ll have the same flexibility so many of their peers have in today’s workforce.”

I wonder if he is talking about the flexibility of the 14 million Americans who are not working and count as unemployed because they are seeking employment? Or perhaps the 2.6 million Americans who have been out of work so long they have stopped looking? Or the 8.8 million who are working part time and looking for full-time work? Or, projecting forward, the flexibility to be laid off and join those numbers so the district can hire a less experienced/less expensive teacher?

Senator Bennet is correct to argue we need to find new and better ways to attract and retain high-quality teachers. But he, like so many others in both labor and management camps, misses the boat on the issue of “flexibility.”

The solution that will benefit our children and educators is not flexibility in moving outside of education in mid-career, when many teachers are reaching their prime, but rather promoting flexibility to stay within the field of education. So long as teachers are considered, and allocated, as individuals who each do the same thing (some better than others) within a classroom of students, the recruitment and retention problem will not be addressed.

So, what is the solution?

Schools and teaching, like nearly every other complex human endeavor, need to be treated as team projects rather than individual projects.

Different adults who work with children bring varying strengths, interests, and needs to the student learning project. Organizing those adults around how best to serve student learning changes the entire nature of the recruitment and retention issue.

Rather than one adult for a classroom of 25-35 students, why not place four adults for a group of 100 students? And not, however, just divvied up into subject matter classes—but rather joined together so the adults support each other while supporting student learning?

Doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me! Consider the following possibilities:

Example 1: The young teacher

An academically-gifted, idealistic, young adult wants to spend a couple of years working in a classroom before heading off to law school, or starting a business, or becoming superintendent of Washington DC—Great. Put her on a team of 3-4 adults, at least one of which is a more seasoned and exceptional teacher.

Both the veteran teacher and the students would benefit from the young adult in their midst. The young adult would certainly benefit, and more importantly benefit the children more, working with an expert. But, unlike Bennet’s approach, pay the young adult less (not more) and the more expert teacher (more, not less) both for his/her expertise and also for the additional role of mentoring the young adult.

Example 2: The veteran teacher

A five-year veteran teacher who has learned the ropes and is good at what she does decides she would like to stay in teaching, but has no desire to take on roles other than working with children. She may want to spend more time with her own children, or she may wish to read and write poetry. She too can be a member of the team. She gets paid more than the young adult and less than the mentor teacher. But, on the team, all the adults get to do what they want to do, they get paid fairly (not equally) for it, and the student learning project benefits.

Example 3: The teacher leader

Another senior teacher has shown she is exceptional at both teaching children and teaching adults but wants to have more of a role outside of the classroom. Great. She can become part of a peer review process that has a track record of supporting those teachers who should stay working in the field and dismissing/counseling out those who should not remain working in the field. She can cycle back into the classroom or she can remain out of the classroom in an administrative role.

Teachers enter the field for multiple personal reasons, no question. Among those reasons: the capacity to earn enough money to provide one self and one’s family food, clothing, shelter, and health care.

Financial incentives, however, are not the sole reason teachers either enter or leave the field. Any purely economically rational decision-maker would recognize there are greater financial rewards in other fields. Thus, teachers also enter with a sense of mission, a desire to make a difference, to share the content they love with the students and families they yearn to serve. They leave, most often, when they feel they are unable to make a difference (often because of a perceived lack of administrative support).

Keeping the job the same while paying teachers more now and less later will not help attract and retain the quality teaching profession our children deserve and the well-being of our communities require—differentiating the roles, paying fairly, and providing flexible entry points into, out of, and within teaching will.

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Dean Jon Snyder is the chief academic administrator of the College after the president. The dean oversees and enriches academic policies and quality throughout the College. This includes offerings both for children (Children's Programs, Liberty, and the Bank Street Headstart Centers), and for adults (in the Graduate School and in Bankstreetonline). He has been an elementary school teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, teacher educator, education researcher, and most recently a teacher of administrator performance assessments and teacher residency models.